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How to Do a Good Oral History Interview

Biff Barnes

People often think of an interview as a Q & A between the interviewer and her subject. That might be the case if you are doing a radio interview or a piece for a celebrity magazine. But to do a successful oral history interview you need to think about the process in a quite different way.

The goal of your oral history is not generally an attempt to add to your store of facts, but a quest for colorful and detailed stories to enhance understanding of the facts you already know.

I am usually disappointed when I see lists of interview questions for family historians to ask relatives. Too often these questions are very specific and will elicit brief factual answers. For example, if you ask someone where they lived as a child, they will most likely give you a brief answer stating a specific location – town, address or house. You won’t learn much about the place. People want to give you what they think you’re asking for and they’ll likely think you want this kind of factual answer.

A more effective interview relies on open-ended questions to get the interview subject talking. explains in a post on Open-Ended Questions, “Open-ended questions typically begin with words such as ‘Why’ and ‘How’, or phrases such as ‘Tell me about...’. Often they are not technically a question, but a statement which implicitly asks for a response.”

The Regional Oral History Project, Bancroft Library, the University of. California at. Berkeley offers some good ideas on how to use open ended questions in oral history interviews. Its post Tips for Interviewers,  presents a list of 19 recommendations drawn from Willa K. Baum's Oral History for the Local Historical Society (Third Edition, 1987). If you are planning on conducting an oral history interview reviewing the list carefully and applying its lessons will go a long way toward ensuring a successful outcome.